By Daniel Litvin – This article was originally published by the Financial Times
Targeting western multinationals rather than governments is often a more effective way for pressure groups to gain publicity for their cause.
If the success of an environmental group’s activism is measured by the headlines it generates, campaigners at the Centre for Science and the Environment should be rejoicing. This New Delhi-based group’s campaign to improve water quality in India has been given massive global publicity following its claims that soft drinks produced in the country by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola contain traces of pesticide. Both companies have denied this, arguing that their drinks are safe. But the mere mention of such well-known brands has been enough to grab the world’s attention.
Whatever the truth, the campaign illustrates neatly that targeting western multinationals is often the most effective way for a pressure group to gain publicity for its particular cause. Any failures at Coca-Cola and Pepsi should rightly be exposed. Nonetheless anti-corporate campaigns of this sort are also worth a hard-headed examination for they often do little to solve the underlying problems.
The CSE’s broader objective, to improve water quality, is beyond reproach. Dirty water is India’s biggest killer of babies. But the group’s real target is the Indian government and its weak regulations of water quality. Only a small part of the blame for India’s polluted water can be laid at the door of foreign companies, let alone those making soft drinks. The millions of farmers who allow pesticides to run off their land and the thousands of Indian-owned factories that are subject to lax regulation have at least as much to answer for. With many of India’s destitute families forced to draw water from sewage-infested rivers, the problem also owes much to poverty and the state’s inability to provide basic public services.
A campaign aimed at the Indian government alone would make few waves. But attacks on Coca-Cola and Pepsi resonate with westerners distrustful of corporate power and with many Indians whose suspicions regarding exploitative multinationals are fuelled by post-colonial resentment. The trouble is that a healthier Coke will not solve India’s water problem.
Over the last five years big western pharmaceuticals groups were vilified by pressure groups for the high price of their Aids drugs in Africa. The campaign brought global publicity for the activist groups involved – and was in large part justified. But the price of drugs was just one a number of problems underlying the Aids crisis. Equally important, and far more difficult to solve, is the dire state of public health systems in many African countries. Western companies have since lowered their drugs prices, but health services remain dilapidated. Hence the low take-up in some countries of cheap or donated medication.
By focusing on high-profile western brands such as Nike western activists and local union movements in Asia brought to international attention alleged abuses such as the use of child labour. As a result, Nike and its competitors now demand higher standards from their Asian suppliers, but there is little evidence these campaigns have brought a broader improvement in working conditions. Labour standards of companies outside the export sector are often worse than those of factories selling to the west. Indeed, an estimated 95 per cent of child workers in developing countries toil away for employers that do no business with western brands.
Or consider the campaigns accusing western oil and mining groups of complicity in human-rights abuses and of taking advantage of lower environmental standards in developing countries – such as Indonesia or Nigeria. Sometimes these criticisms have been justified. Nonetheless stop pressure groups framing their grievances in ways that focus on the sins of the multinationals and underplay other issues. Usually, there is a more complex set of local grievances in which communities accuse national governments of failing to share oil and mineral revenues, or repressing their aspirations for political autonomy. With the recent growth of the corporate social responsibility movement, some big oil and mining companies have begun to improve their practices. Yet many of the underlying political problems remain intractable.
For activists, targeting western multinationals is a way of generating publicity. But while western companies are susceptible to pressure group campaigns, it is much harder to persuade governments to deal with deep-seated problems. Do not expect a safer fizzy drink to save many Indian babies.